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Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

After the U.S. military withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, the governments there that the U.S. had been supporting were all overthrown and replaced by Marxist regimes. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Moscow-backed Marxist regime there fell in 1992. It is not surprising, then, that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would lead to the downfall of the regime that Washington had been supporting. What is surprising is that the Kabul government fell to the Taliban even before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal.

Read the full article at https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/568091-after-the-fall-of-kabul-will-there-be-more-islamist-revolutions?rl=1#bottom-story-socials

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Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.

 

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The recently published memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton (The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020) provides an extraordinarily detailed account. In it, Bolton underscores that there have been three main features in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.  First and foremost is that while Donald Trump is both woefully ignorant about international relations and is largely uninterested in learning about the subject, he is unwilling to defer to expert advice on it.  Second is that Trump does not really value America’s traditional allies, and indeed he often sees the democratically elected ones in particular more as adversaries seeking to take advantage of the United States.  Third, while Trump is concerned about how America’s actual adversaries (including Russia) are acting to America’s detriment, he is firmly convinced that he can make mutually advantageous deals with them—and that they are all eager to do so with him.

Bolton deplores all three of these features in Trump’s foreign policy approach.  I certainly agree with him about the first two.  Presidents need to become deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs since so much of the job requires dealing with this set of issues.  And while presidents should not accept uncritically everything told to them by the foreign policy and intelligence community, they need to recognize and respect the depth of its expertise and have a far more serious reason for rejecting its advice than that their “gut” tells them otherwise, as Trump has all too often done.  In addition, America’s interests are not well served by treating our allies as adversaries.  The world will be a far more difficult place for the U.S. to navigate if democratic governments lose confidence in it.

However, the desire to reach mutually beneficial agreements with America’s adversaries, and convert them into partners or even friends, is not a bad thing.  Further, this is something that previous presidents have done—including Republican ones—and so Trump’s desire to make deals with adversaries is hardly outside the norm of American diplomacy.  But whether or not he should have pursued deals with these particular adversaries (and Bolton is doubtful on this score about most of them), none of Trump’s efforts in this regard have proven to be successful.

Bolton’s account describes Trump’s efforts to “make deals” with six authoritarian adversaries:  Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Islamic leadership, elements of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There was variation, though, in what each of these attempted deals sought to accomplish.  The deal Trump sought with North Korea was a straightforward trade about Pyongyang’s foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. removing economic sanctions.  In Iran’s case, a nuclear deal had already been reached with Tehran by the Obama Administration and five other governments, but Trump withdrew from it and sought a “better deal” over the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s regional behavior in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The deals Trump sought in Venezuela and Afghanistan, by contrast, related to internal conflict resolution, but in opposite ways.  In Venezuela, Trump sought the negotiated departure of the anti-American president, Nicolas Maduro, through a deal with the leaders of Maduro’s security forces co-opting them to support a transfer of power to the democratic leader, Juan Guaido.  In Afghanistan, by contrast, Trump sought a deal with America’s longtime adversary, the Taliban, in which U.S. forces are reduced and ultimately withdrawn in exchange for this group behaving moderately afterward.

The deal Trump sought with China focused mainly on trade issues, while the one with Russia appeared more a classic great power bargain involving several politico-military issues, but not trade (since there isn’t much between the U.S. and Russia).

In each case, according to Bolton’s account, Trump convinced himself that the top adversary leader or leadership was “dying to do a deal” with him.  Trump even saw his getting tough with them through increased sanctions and other measures as increasing their desire to do so.  Trump also seemed to think that good personal relations with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in particular would help make this possible.  Much to the disgust of Bolton (a longstanding Iran hawk), Trump repeatedly sought meetings with Iranian leaders, and blamed their unwillingness to meet with him on what he saw as the malign influence of former Senator John Kerry, who had helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord when he was Obama’s Secretary of State.  With regard to Venezuela, Bolton relates how Trump not only had a negative view of the democratic opposition leader Guaido (and of his wife) whom U.S. policy sought to support, he sometimes expressed admiration for Maduro, the authoritarian leader whose departure his administration was seeking.  Bolton also relates with disgust how Trump sought a Camp David meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders whom the Trump Administration had earlier excluded, per the Taliban’s request, from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha about an American drawdown and withdrawal.

Although he did not say so, what Bolton’s account suggests is that, despite Russian interference in support of Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Trump’s aversion to criticizing Putin publicly, Trump has not really treated Putin differently than he has America’s other authoritarian adversaries.  Indeed, during the Trump Administration, Washington has increased economic sanctions against Moscow, sent arms to Ukraine, withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, and so far refused to extend the New Strategic Arms Treaty (which expires February 2021)—all of which has displeased Putin.  Yet Trump still seems to think that reaching a deal with him is what Putin wants and needs.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of Trump’s approach to authoritarian adversaries:  pile on sanctions and other negative measure, but offer to come to more moderate terms in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps this is how Trump conducted his private business dealings before he became president, and so believes that this formula would also work for him as president.  And indeed, some authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and most especially Kim Jong-un) have been willing to flatter Trump as well as meet with him.  In addition, some Taliban leaders and (as Bolton relates) some of Maduro’s top security officials have either met or communicated with Trump administration officials.  The Iranian leadership is the outlier in refusing to do so.  But with the partial exception of a partial trade truce with China (which seems shaky), none of these diplomatic forays by Trump have succeeded.

Why is this?  To begin with, personal chemistry (or Trump’s attempted pursuit of it) with authoritarian leaders may be useful in helping reach a deal, but it is not enough to induce leaders to change their long-held views of what their interests are.  Indeed, they may be bold enough to think that the more personal chemistry they build up with Trump, the more likely it is that they can change his mind about them and their countries.

In addition, while Trump himself prioritizes trade issues, America’s authoritarian adversaries often do not.  Trump, then, may think that piling on economic sanctions should be sufficient to induce rational actors to change their policy in order to get them removed, but authoritarian leaders often have other priorities.  Indeed, for some such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the prospect of increased trade and other contacts with the U.S. may actually appear more threatening than beneficial since what they really fear is that the U.S. seeks their downfall through increased societal contact which might more easily lead to “color revolution.”

Further, America’s authoritarian adversaries may have good reason not to take Trump’s tough talk seriously after seeing how (as Bolton ruefully pointed out) when Trump was on the point of retaliating militarily against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, he suddenly—and with needless publicity—canceled his order to do so.  It is also difficult for them to take Trump’s tough talk seriously when he himself repeatedly raises the prospect of withdrawing U.S. troops from various allied countries in several parts of the world.  In other words, Trump’s talk of withdrawal only shows them that they may not have to make any concessions to Trump to get him to do what they want the U.S. to do anyway.

Finally, given how rudely and disdainfully Trump treats America’s longstanding allies compared to how (relatively) solicitous and accommodating he has been toward America’s adversaries, Trump may unwittingly be giving the latter strong incentive to remain adversaries.  For Trump has given them reason to wonder whether increased cooperation with him will result in his eventually treating his new friends like he does America’s old ones.

Bolton made clear in his memoir that he disagreed with most of Trump’s efforts to make deals with America’s adversaries.  But one does not have to agree with Bolton’s much harsher policy preferences to appreciate how his description of the erratic and idiosyncratic manner in which Trump pursued his hoped for deals with adversaries was self-sabotaging.

Diplomacy is hard enough to succeed at even for those leaders who have a thorough knowledge of international relations.  For those who do not have such knowledge and refuse to take advice from those who do, it is impossible.

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News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.

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The Bush Administration’s decisions to intervene first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq have proven to be highly costly ventures.  Many lives have been lost and disrupted, much property has been damaged, and vast resources have been expended.  Despite this effort, neither country has been stabilized, much less democratized.  Further, America’s image was badly tarnished, and relations with other countries—even close allies—were negatively impacted.

Thus, the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw American forces first from Iraq (completed at the end of 2011) and then from Afghanistan (to be completed by the end of 2014) have been popular both at home and abroad.

But despite the popularity of the Obama Administration’s decisions to withdraw—and despite the unlikelihood that a Romney Administration would be willing or able to reverse them—these withdrawals are not going to bring about a happy resolution to the conflict situations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot help but remind those of us old enough to remember what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.  American forces completed their withdrawal at the beginning of 1973—and communist forces took over South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos just over two years later in the spring of 1975.

And as much as we abhorred the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Soviet forces over the course of 1988-89 that was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1996 does not bode well for what might happen following the departure of Western forces at the end of 2014.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Taliban or a similar group could again overrun Afghanistan.

As for Iraq:  it was surely not the intention of the Bush Administration to put into office there a government that would become friends with American’s adversary, Iran.  Yet that is exactly what has happened.

So what do we do now?  Indeed, can we do anything at all to prevent disaster short of massive re-intervention—which, of course, would also be disastrous?

I would like to suggest that there are policy options between massive intervention on the one hand and doing nothing on the other, and that these “in-between” options might be better suited both for advancing long-term American interests as well as promoting security in the region.  Understanding what these options are, though, requires an understanding of two things:  1) what is it that we are afraid of? and 2) what factors are likely to continue or arise in the region as the U.S. withdraws from the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts that the U.S. can work with either to prevent that which we fear from occurring, or mitigate it if we can’t?

Describing what we fear is easy.  In Afghanistan, it’s the return to power of a vengeful Taliban regime (or a reasonable facsimile) bent on supporting Al Qaeda and other jihadist movements.  In Iraq, it’s the prospect of seeing that everything we did there has only succeeded in installing a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad which will work with Tehran to undermine America’s oil rich but militarily weak Sunni allies in the Gulf—as many see the ongoing Shi’a unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as evidence of.

There are, though, three tendencies that the U.S. can take advantage of to prevent or mitigate these negative scenarios.

The first is that regional rivalries will continue whether the U.S. stays or goes.  Even after the departure of U.S. forces, then, neighboring countries will act to oppose the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq.  The U.S. can support these efforts.

The second is the tendency for those whom we oppose to overplay their hand once they think they have beaten us, behave in an authoritarian manner whenever they have the opportunity to do so, and thus alienate the people of their own country as well as neighboring ones—whom we and our allies can help.

The third is the tendency for radical forces opposed to the U.S. to also oppose one another—especially when, once again, they think that American power is on the decline.  When the opportunity arises, the U.S. can exploit these rivalries—but only if it recognizes opportunities to do so when they arise.

Taking advantage of these three tendencies is the theory, if you will, advanced in my book, “Leaving without Losing.”  But can the U.S. do this in the specific cases of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Let’s start first with Afghanistan.  As noted earlier, what we fear here is that the U.S. withdrawal will be followed by the return to power of the Taliban or a similar group.  But there are others who fear this too:  India, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics.  Indeed, all these actors may be more highly motivated than the U.S. to prevent the return of a Pakistani-backed Islamist regime to Afghanistan.  The U.S. can do much to help them in this.  At the very least, we should not hinder them.

In addition, the Taliban established a strong record of misrule during its first period in power from 1996 to 2001.  Unlike before the first time they overran most of the country, then, Afghans are under no illusion now about what their rule will be like if they take over again.  The Haqqani Network—a more vicious as well as more pro-Pakistani group—are even more feared.  The prospect of groups such as these coming to power should provide a powerful incentive to Afghans to oppose them.  Even after withdrawing its own forces, then, the U.S. can—and should—continue to assist those Afghans willing to resist them to do so.

Now some might ask, “If Afghan government forces are doing so poorly against the Taliban while U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, how can they be expected to resist them once the U.S. leaves?”  The model those who ask this undoubtedly have in mind is Indochina four decades ago when the U.S. withdrawal in early 1973 was followed by the downfall of the governments it was protecting in the spring of 1975, or even when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992.

But this sequence of events is not inevitable.  The withdrawal of foreign forces fighting an insurgency is not always followed by the downfall of the government they were protecting.  In some cases, the government being protected has actually survived the withdrawal of the foreign forces and brought an end to the conflict with its internal opponents.  This happened in North Yemen following the withdrawal of Egyptian forces in 1967 and in Angola following the withdrawal of Cuban forces at the end of the Cold War.  Other examples could be cited.  The key thing to keep in mind is that—despite how unflattering to them this might be—the presence of foreign protectors often negatively affects the legitimacy of the governments they were sent to protect.  The withdrawal of the foreign forces, then, can actually increase the legitimacy of beleaguered governments—especially when they can point out how it is their opponents who are the ones linked to foreign governments (as the Taliban is with Pakistan).

Finally, we already know that relations between the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters are fraught with difficulty.  As the U.S. withdrawal proceeds, the more likely it is that these differences will increase.  This may provide opportunities for the U.S. to exploit.  One could be arranging for an internal Afghan settlement that includes the Taliban and thus liberates it from dependence on Pakistan.  Or, if the Afghan Taliban (which has gotten help from Pakistan) gives aid and support to the Pakistani Taliban (which opposes the Pakistani government), the Pakistani government may finally realize that supporting radical Islamists is not in its interests and seek American assistance against them.  Whether either of these situations will arise is unclear.  But we can’t take advantage of them if we refuse to acknowledge that they are possible.

Let’s turn next to Iraq.  Even with the U.S. having withdrawn, there are others in the region seeking to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Iraq and beyond.  These states include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other oil rich monarchies.  Israel shares this interest with them.  The U.S. can help them in these efforts.

In addition, the democratically elected Arab Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Maleki that the U.S. intervention made possible has not just made friends with Iran, but has been ruling in an increasingly autocratic manner.  The U.S. intervention, though, also benefited the Kurdish minority in the north and allowed it to establish a regional government, relatively independent from Baghdad, which has established a remarkable degree of stability and prosperity in this area.  Continued American support for this de facto Kurdish state serves American interests through enabling a people strongly motivated to keep both Tehran’s and Baghdad’s ambitions in check to do so successfully.

Another accomplishment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was how relations between the U.S. armed forces on the one hand and the Sunni Arab minority on the other went from extremely hostile to very good (thanks, in part, to Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bad behavior).  What the U.S. did not succeed at, however, is reconciling the Shi’a Arab majority with the Sunni Arab minority (or the Kurdish minority).  And since the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government’s behavior toward the Sunni minority has become increasingly oppressive.  What this means, of course, is that (like the Kurds), the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is also strongly motivated to keep Baghdad’s and Tehran’s ambitions in check.

We must not, though, just write off the Iraqi Shi’a.  They are divided among themselves.  What this means is that if Maleki or other leaders lean toward Iran, at least some of their Shi’a rivals are likely to seek American support.  More importantly, it must not be forgotten that Iraq and Iran have historically been rivals.  Just because Iraq has gone from being ruled by a Sunni minority regime to being ruled by a Shi’a majority one may not change this.  The division between Arab and Persian appears to be much stronger than the common tie of Shi’ism—as the Iranian government’s failure to spark a revolt by the Iraqi Shi’as against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War showed.  Further, the Iraqi Shi’a ayatollahs do not accept the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader.  If and when differences between Baghdad and Tehran emerge, this will provide an opportunity for Washington.

What all this means, though, is that dealing with Iraq will be tricky.  The more that the U.S. and its allies support the Kurdish and Arab Sunni minorities, the less likely that the Arab Shi’a government in Baghdad will move away from Tehran.  But the more that the U.S. and its allies support the government in Baghdad, the more likely it is to feel that it can treat the minorities harshly—thus creating opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Thus, whatever else America does in Iraq, its long-term interests would be best served through patiently promoting what would also be in the best interests of all Iraqis:  the establishment of a true federal democracy that keeps Iraq united, but respects the autonomy of its principal communities.  Unless and until they are all on board with this, however, it is not going to come into being—but their differences will allow the U.S. room for maneuver against any which ally with Iran.

The foreign policy approach I am proposing here for the U.S. to pursue toward Iraq and Afghanistan after withdrawing from them is—I freely admit—not big and bold.  Nor do I apologize for this.  It was the Bush Administration’s big and bold foreign policy approach toward Afghanistan and Iraq, after all, which got us into the mess we’re now in.  But this is not the first time we’ve been in such a mess.  It was a similar big and bold foreign policy approach that got us into a similar situation in Indochina which we also ended up extricating ourselves from through withdrawal.  And then when America went to the other extreme of being completely unwilling to intervene afterward because we wanted “no more Vietnams,” the Marxists took advantage of this to seize power in several more (what were then known as) Third World countries during the 1970s.

Back then, though, the U.S. adopted a three-part foreign policy approach, similar to the one I’m advocating here, of exploiting the opportunities provided by regional rivalries, the opposition generated by our adversaries’ authoritarian rule, and the seemingly inevitable hostility that arises within the ranks of radicals.  And it was this prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach that contributed to a dramatic change from an overextended America being taken advantage of by its adversaries in the late 1960s and the 1970s to a seemingly weakened America being able to take advantage of its Marxist adversaries’ overextension in the 1980s.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel confident that the adoption of the prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach outlined here will also prove more successful than the extremes of massive intervention on the one hand doing nothing on the other.

This is a slightly revised version of a speech I gave at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in San Francisco on August 16, 2012.

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